Vikram Johri’s essay “I am a gay Indian man and still lean to the Right. Here’s why” makes some splendid and thought-provoking points. But by the end, I was starting to tire of the device he uses over and over: “I don’t like this X stuff that the Right is doing, but I support them for their focus on this Y stuff.” Or in reverse: “I like this Z from the Left, but this W turns me off.”
Let’s be clear, I have no problem with Johri leaning whichever way he chooses. Democracy is like that and I’m a believer. What’s more, no reasonably thoughtful person would agree fully with every single thing put forward by a particular side of the political spectrum, a particular ideology or party. This should hardly need saying, though of course there are blowhards who pretend to assume it from everyone they have disagreements with. But leave blowhards alone. If a writer like Johri makes the argument the same way repeatedly, you can’t help thinking he is hedging his bets, almost apologising for certain things he believes in. When his rationales are as shaky as his article suggests they are, he only comes across as unsure of himself.
No good persuasion
The brow begins to furrow from Johri’s first two paragraphs itself. “I have often been asked to justify my politics against the sometimes blatant homophobia of the Right,” he says. Okay, so I’m waiting for this justification, but what’s the next thing I read? This sentence: “My chief grouse with the Left is its economics.” How is this grouse a justification against the homophobia of the Right?
Johri does go on to explain that he believes “economic growth is the best solution to anti-minority sentiment, whatever the minority may be”. That is, he thinks the best bet for the protection of homosexuals from homophobia is economic growth – that everybody gets more prosperous and, therefore, less homophobic. That may be so, it may not be so. A society’s overall wealth versus homophobia? I’d like to see some data that speaks to a negative correlation.
Still, if Johri thinks one holds here, fine. It also happens to be a vision of a future Valhalla. I don’t think gay people facing “blatant homophobia” today find much comfort in the mere promise of economic growth tomorrow. What do we do about homophobia today? Why should we gloss over the very real prejudices gays face today?
Just a few paragraphs on, we find Johri trumpeting the virtues of Donald Trump. He’s welcome to do so – it’s called freedom of speech – but he bases his approval of the man on something akin to quicksand. “At a time when Europe is facing an immigrant crisis and when Islamic radicalism is a real threat, the Left has branded anti-immigrant Trump a villain, without debating why he so successfully speaks to anxieties about terror and unchecked immigration,” he says.
No doubt, there are anxieties about terror and unchecked immigration. But if Trump speaks to them, what should “the Left”, or in fact anyone who has their eyes open, do? Simply agree that these are reasonable anxieties, never to be questioned and thus left to burn ever more fiercely? Or point out the realities that might actually calm them?
For example, immigration into the United States can hardly be described as unchecked, and Trump (or anyone) lies if he labels it so. For example, immigrant violence in the US is far lower than violence from homegrown Americans. And gun violence in the US kills far more Americans than whatever gets called terror. In fact, perhaps all gun violence should also be called terror – what, after all, is the difference between Dylann Roof of Charleston on the one hand and Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik of San Bernardino on the other, or even Anders Breivik of Utøya?
If we did address terror in this wider sense, its Islamic connection would be shown up as the tenuous exaggeration it is at best. What’s more, we’d do much better in fighting terror, because we wouldn’t be pretending that only some murderous scum are terrorists while other murderous scum are not.
All of which makes up some real arguments against Trump and what he speaks to. I have no idea if he is a “villain”, but his empty rhetoric on these and other issues is what makes him unfit to be president of his country.
Freedom of speech
“I don’t agree with France’s burkini ban but I am against women covering their faces,” writes Johri. This is a good opportunity to ask a simple question: Why shouldn’t a woman decide exactly how much of her body she wants to cover? If some women choose not to show the rest of us what a bikini covers, why shouldn’t other women choose not show the rest of us what a burkini covers, their faces included? Apart from identification requirements, why is some degree of feminine cover-up fine but another degree of cover-up not fine?
There’s more, but I’ll pick on just one more point Johri makes. He believes in “the absolute sovereignty and sanctity of the Indian Union”, he tells us, and he “do[es] not think that calling for India’s demise counts as freedom of speech”. Whatever he does not think, he misunderstands the idea of freedom of speech. It is not meant to apply solely to utterances I agree with. In fact, it exists – its very purpose is – to protect precisely the pronouncements I find objectionable. Therefore, yes, it applies to “calling for India’s demise”, offensive as that may be.
For freedom of speech – for that matter, any freedom – is like that: Absolute. Everything counts as freedom of speech, or there is none. After all, the belief in freedom like that – the yearning for it – is the reason we today have independent countries like Latvia and Kazakhstan and Ukraine, instead of the monstrous perversity of the Soviet Union. Or the independent country of Bangladesh, instead of the oppressed obscenity of East Pakistan. After all, the Soviet Union and that older Pakistan also regularly proclaimed their sovereignty and sanctity, and look what happened to them.
Lessons worth remembering, most of all at a time when hostilities and hatred directed across our borders get ratcheted ever higher.
I cannot stand the idea of a fragmenting India. I also know the lesson history holds: Denying a country’s citizens freedoms is the swiftest, surest way to exactly such fragmentation.
It’s why I believe there’s more than just romance in the line Sting sang so memorably, "If you love someone, set them free.”
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